Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen

My friend Matt Phillips explores an important point in Lutheran theology: when is a Christian allowed to resist unjust authority? This is a serious issue, as Luther’s rebellion against Papal authority helped to inspire a major peasants’ revolt in the 1520s. Luther eventually turned against it with a remarkable pamphlet entitled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525), in which he called on everyone to:

smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.

The revolt was eventually put down, at the cost of some 100,000 lives. Some people never forgave Luther for this, and indeed I find it strange that his movement survived it, but Luther was unapologetic: his Reformation was to be a purely spiritual affair, not a political one. “God hath not granted the sword in vain” is one of the great Lutheran lines, the “sword” here being secular legal authority.

But to what extent this principle led to the German penchant for obedience is a topic that deserves further study. Some people just don’t deserve to be obeyed, do they? We can all think of a particular figure in German history to whom resistance would have been amply justified. Luther’s Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523) indicates that Luther’s ideas were a little more subtle than commonly understood:

While he advised obedience to temporal authorities, Luther mocked evil rulers in the first paragraph of Temporal Authority when he wrote, “For God Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do—and order their subjects to do—whatever they please.” He explained that subjects are not obligated to obey their rulers in all matters, especially regarding the command to turn over Luther’s books to temporal authorities. Referring to Acts 5:29, Luther explained that Christians owed obedience to temporal authorities in earthly matters, but they should not willingly turn over books. However, if the authorities searched their homes and confiscated their property, they must suffer as Christians and not resist forcibly.

Furthermore, in 1530:

at a meeting in Torgau, Luther and Philip Melanchthon agreed to support resistance against a potential Imperial invasion of Protestant lands. Luther, Melanchthon, and other theologians agreed to the legal argument that Emperor Charles V was elected under certain conditions of Imperial law. That is, the emperor had voluntarily limited his own authority in formulating and adjudicating laws, that is, man-made positive law as distinct from natural law. Therefore, if he acted outside of his jurisdiction, the Protestant princes (though not individual Christians as Christians) may actively resist as a matter of self-defense against the unjust laws of men. Thus, the theologians, particularly Luther, accepted the Saxon jurists’ argument as a matter of positive law, but still rejected active resistance based merely on theology or natural law.

Read the whole thing. I don’t know if this would have stopped Hitler, but it does indicate that for Luther, the “sword” was by no means absolute.

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